Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 4 of 8: Facing Storms
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
April 2th, 2017
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.
When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.
So we have been working through this series on how we handle the heavy things in life. And we talked our way through some things that weigh on us that we are not even aware. Today it’s a little more blunt and — well — here we go. I hope you came with high expectations and I believe our text will fulfill them.
I don’t think that we should let young children receive communion because they don’t really know what it means. This young woman had raised her hand and said these words in a class and another student in the class raised their hand and said: who knows exactly what communion means? I can tell you; I can use words to say that communion — one of our sacraments — means everything that a meal means: hospitality and refreshment and conversation and the offering of what one person can do for another, sacrifice, love of neighbor. Above all, the message is: You Belong Here. The Eucharist means all of this in the presence of Jesus. This is where our words peter out and the mystery we experience at the Lord’s Table becomes too much for words. Holy baptism is similar — the other Christian sacrament that we celebrate — baptism means everything that water means: refreshment and play, also drowning, diving deep to explore and have an adventure, and finding yourself too deep and not able to breathe and instantly wondering as your heart starts pounding in your ears will I make it back to the surface and then making it to the surface and breaking the surface, gasping the breath of life again. Baptism means all of this in the presence of Jesus. I am all for instruction. I’m all for education. I’m also carefully unfolding and contemplating the understanding of our experience at church. But there are limits to our ability to get words around the presence of Jesus, made known to us. It is a mystery.
And so now we have these two stories of Scripture and the people who wrote them had the same problem. How do we talk about this Jesus with words? The first text that Rob read for us; Jesus is being pursued by a large crowd. It’s the Passover season. Jesus is gathered his disciples to teach them. The crowds are pressing in on them because they heard what Jesus has done for others. The problem is at hand. How are all these people going to be fed? The word is there’s nothing available except well this small boy has got a few loaves and some small fish. The other gospel writers don’t tell of this boy. But John does; John has a message. The message is very clear: when we share what we have people get fed in more ways than we can tell.
One way that our culture has dealt with the mystery of this text is by presuming that Jesus does a magic show and multiplies loaves. And I suppose if that helps you; I’m okay with that if you’re seven years old. But most of us are adults and it’s time to behave and talk like adults and think like adults. And Jesus is not a magic show. The deeper way that this text invites us to think about this is what is being demanded of me in the presence of Jesus. And we say: that is a mystery and we stop thinking about it. Or we let Jesus do magic and nothing is asked of us in the presence of Jesus. But that is not what is in text. What is in the text is when people see a child share everything the child has their hearts are changed. And I see people reaching under their cloak, touching the bread that they brought for themselves and secretly pulling it out to share. Before this, the disciples had asked: does anyone have bread, does anyone have fish, can anybody share? But once one person said: no, no, I’ve got nothing. Then everyone became afraid that if they shared what they had, there would not be enough to go around and the bread wouldn’t make it back to feed them. Sure I’d like to share but this is the real world.
Jesus approaches it differently. A child who doesn’t have the experience and the fear yet to hide what he has shares it and he is recognized as the one representing God, a child of God, a child of the light, a child gathered doing God’s work. The message is very clear. You have tried hoarding, you have tried keeping; it does not work. What if you did what you are scared of doing: share what you have and trust it is enough that you too will be blessed. Jesus commands them to distribute the food and not only is the crowd fed but there are twelve baskets full of leftovers. Once generosity begins it overtakes everyone. Remember this as you think about the offering you just made. And as you think through this week about the offering you will make next week. The people are amazed — of course — hailing Jesus as the prophet who has come. Some people might say: Pastor, Jesus did perform a magic trick and multiplied loads. And you are reducing Scripture; you have taken away the mystery. I would say I think exactly the opposite. To not examine the nuances of the text and let myself off the hook of anything being asked of me violates the presence of Jesus as we know him. It is a simpleminded approach; Jesus multiplied loaves; we all got fed, yeah! But where else in the text do we see that Jesus asks nothing of those who receive?
To ponder group dynamics and Jesus’ ability to change the outlook of an entire crowd; it is no easy thought. And he manages to move everyone in the crowd from observer to participant. That’s the miracle and it affected them all and made the gospel real for every one of them. Some of you who tithe know this and some of you who don’t tithe are scared of this. I have wondered, maybe we should offer tithing as our third sacrament based on its ability to change a life.
That evening Jesus goes to pray and his disciples launch out in a boat to cross over the sea. There is a storm; there is wind; there are waves and they are scared. It’s dark and they are holding on in the rolling in there trying to get where they want to get. They want to be on solid ground again. They see Jesus walking and coming near the boat and they are terrified. I know some of you have been in a storm like that. We sat together in the hospital waiting room. We sat together at hospice. We set together at the funeral home as water ran off our faces. We went over the swell of the waves that were hitting us and then we went down the other side into the trough and there were moments there where we were pretty sure the bow of the boat would just keep going down into the depths of the water and we would’ve been just fine with it. We gritted our jaws because we were trying not to throw up. I know some of you have been in a storm like that because we sat together in the morning after the decision was made to divorce. We had a hard time standing up because the currents were moving the boat in such a way that balance was no longer an option. All we could do was hold on tight until our hands hurt. I know some of you have been in the storm like that because we sat together the day after you were informed that you were no longer be employed. We looked into the darkness and the fog and we couldn’t see what was in front of us and we couldn’t see what was behind us and run back to it. I know some of you are acquainted with a storm like this because you’ve watched your brothers, your sisters, your children, your grandchildren walk through days or weeks or months or years trying to find their way; hoping to find some purpose; looking for something that will give them peace and meaning, and there’s nothing for us to do. There is no respite for feeling helpless. The powerless of worry has our face in a stronghold.
Here we are — all in the same boat — trying to cross over to the other side of this chaos; seeking safety over there on solid ground as disciples of Jesus. And to terrified disciples Jesus comes saying: I’m with you; do not be afraid. We hear that first part: do not be afraid, and we nod out heads and say: OK, no more fear. And we stop reading. But the text is interesting after this. The text says they were willing to receive him into the boat and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading. Are you seeing this? One of two things has happened, either this is another magic trick. The disciples are in deep water and they take Jesus into the boat and somehow they are magically transported to the shoreline where they are headed. Or the disciples are so lost in their terror and their storm that they don’t even realize where they are. And Jesus getting into the boat and calming their fear help them realize that they were already there.
It was an old movie trope. We’ve all seen it. Back in the silent movie days it was pretty popular. Someone falls into the water and begins thrashing about and screaming: I’m drowning, I’m drowning, someone please come help me. And someone does come up on the shore and say: stop drowning, stand up! And they do and the water comes up to about here [mid-chest]. Maybe Jesus was simply standing on the shoreline and they couldn’t notice because they were in their storm. But the message is pretty clear: you suffered fear, you put down you head, you’ve grabbed on to what seems solid in a chaotic moment and it’s not working. What if you did what you were scared to do? What if you lift your head and look around and see how far you’ve come.
These are wonderful stories. Storms lose their power when you’re on solid ground. This story about being on the water in the chaos of the sea is like the first story, the story of feeding five-thousand, stories about putting God first. When we put God first, God’s ways first, resolution seems to come. We don’t need to be afraid of the storms around us. This is not the first time we heard this right? We were fairly acquainted with this, we might not be aware that we were acquainted. So we tell you how acquainted we are with is in his first public sermon. Jesus tells us about how to respond to a storm, Sermon on the Mount. He begins with the Beatitudes. I think that’s a miss label. I think it would better be labeled how to respond to a storm. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. What’s the storm? The storm is the belief that you should have it all together. Jesus says: no it’s okay you can be poor in spirit. Jesus says blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. What’s the storm? The storm is the belief that you shouldn’t have to mourn. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. What is the storm? The storm is the message of the world to us is those who lack strength are losers. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. What’s the storm? Well the world justifies violence as a sign of power. Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God. What’s the storm? The storm is using our poor experiences as an excuse for poor behavior. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. What’s the storm? The storm is the attraction of power and pride and making war. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of things against you because of me. What is the storm? The storm is thinking it’s your job to please people who have made the decision that they will persecute and accuse and insult as a means of asserting control over you.
The message here is very clear. We’ve all suffered these things and we’ve all tried all manner of solutions until finally we give up. We put our head down and grab on to what seems solid in chaotic moments. It doesn’t work. When the ways of the world get a hold on you, what if you did what you are scared to do? In the face of power and pride and war; we work to be peacemakers. In the face of justified violence, we find ways to make peace. Did you see the pattern here? If you’re looking for God’s way, look for what scares you and consider doing that. And then Jesus goes through a whole litany of things that the world does to control us. He gives us alternatives. Do not let anger run your life. Don’t retaliate instead love people and pray for them when they exclude you. Don’t make a show out of having your faith. Do not let fear determine how you act. Don’t discard people and are no longer convenient to you. Do not speak about evil as if it’s far from you. Do not pass judgment on others and if you really want to measure a life, pay attention to the fruit that life bears.
And then Jesus goes on and makes it worse. He says: so you love those who love you, big deal, everyone does this! Then he says: do what scares you: love those who hate you. Are you seeing a pattern? And it just gets worse, because a little bit later Jesus is going to command us to forgive. We have confused this, we think this means reconcile, that is not what he is commanding us to do. Reconciliation is something that happens when two people have a relationship and they both agree: we have a problem; we can resolve it; we make a new commitment to a new relationship and we go on. That is reconciliation. Jesus encourages that. But Jesus commands us to forgive so forgiveness must be something that each of us can handle on our own, seek in our own control. Well, what do we know? We know that forgiveness is the putting away of anger and bitterness, desire for revenge and destruction of the other person who hurt us, which — if we think about it for a moment — puts the person who he is hurting us out of power over what we do and say. To forgive is to say: I’m no longer granting you the power to cause me to expend my energy to react to you. No matter how you act, no matter what you do, I will not lash out in frustration. I will not respond in anger. And I’m not going to spend the week being depressed. That’s why the notion of turning the other cheek is not a weakness; it is power. You can hit me, you can hit me again, but you cannot force me to react; that is forgiveness.
Forgiveness leads to utter difference toward the person or persons who hurt us. Forgiveness helps us to say: the only person I can control is me. If you practice it you know how powerful it can be in your life because you simply don’t jump anymore. And if there’s one thing missing in our world, it is the power of forgiveness. It would be easy to dismiss this after church. Well it sounds nice, but this is the real world. But seeing as how we’ve tried all manner of other things that haven’t worked what if we tried this thing that scares us. There is a lot packed into doing what scares us as disciples imitating Jesus. Don’t forget the mystery. Because I know there have been times for all of us when we were really sure that what we have is not enough but we offer it anyway. And Jesus blesses and breaks and we find ourselves reassured and standing on solid ground. Or when we have tried everything the world offers because we found that we were angry for about five years. Then we start cultivating words like peacemaking and humility and meekness into our internal vocabulary and we find ourselves forgiving those who have hurt us. Suddenly we are at peace and really empowered over how we feel and how we act. This Christian faith is the mystery of us being met in our fear by Jesus. Doing what scares us and he finds us and he blesses us reassures us and we are fed.
Can I tell you why I stayed in the church my whole life? You know that I’m a scientist, right? You know that all the developments in evolution and thought they would make it easy to walk away. You might say: well you’re the pastor; well I can find a new job. And you might say it is warm fellowship of the church. That’s nice. It’s the encouragement you get in Christian living from great people, well that is nice too. The profoundness of Scripture that find you is sermon preparation is pretty cool too. I stayed in the church because this is where I meet Jesus. Not every day but enough to keep me fed. I have found that following Jesus, putting God first means facing what scares me. And there is no better place to bring what scares me than to church. Little patterns in my behavior that I’ve lived with my whole life have suddenly needed my attention. Little things that I’ve made peace with suddenly I have to speak up about. I found that God provides exactly what we need, exactly when we need it and not one second sooner. Sometimes it is bread. Sometimes it is a risk. Sometimes it is a storm that is calmed. Sometimes it’s an unseen way to go forward, but it is always, it is always always a mystery in the presence of Jesus. This is where my words come to an end because what I’m pointing at is too deep for words. So I am going to let communion do the talking now.